Biden to propose $35B more aid for higher ed, pursue debt cancellation

The outcome of last week’s Senate run-off races quickly sparked a flurry of speculation about what a Biden administration backed by a unified, Democratic-controlled Congress could mean for higher education. Will they deliver additional relief aid? Will they erase student loan debt? Could tuition-free college make it to the president’s desk? 

With inauguration just days away, colleges and universities saw clear signals this week as President-Elect Joe Biden proposed a new infusion of support for higher ed, and aides spoke of cancelling some student loan debt.

However, experts caution that Democrats’ slim majority in Congress still “may doom higher education proposals unpalatable to some moderates and conservatives, such as free college,” Higher Ed Dive reports. 

A plan to deliver $35B more in higher ed relief

Biden on Thursday spoke of his plans to propose an additional $1.9 trillion relief package, including $35 billion in additional aid to help higher education institutions provide emergency grants to students, implement public health protocols, and facilitate distance learning. The announcement came just as federal officials gave the sector access to the $21.2 billion in support included in December’s omnibus spending and stimulus bill. 

According to a fact sheet, Biden intends to direct the $35 billion in additional funding to public institutions, including community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions. Individual students could see up to $1,700 in financial aid from their colleges and universities. The summary also mentions $5 billion for state governors to use to support educational programs that benefit “students significantly impacted by COVID-19, whether K-12, higher education, or early childhood education programs.”  

Asking Congress to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt

Biden’s transition team has further indicated that the president-elect will ask Congress to pass legislation forgiving up to $10,000 in student loan debt for individual borrowers, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Such a measure could erase the entire debt burden for up to one-third of the nation’s 43 million student loan borrowers.  

Some legislators and advocacy groups are pushing Biden to take even more aggressive steps, calling on the president-elect to forgive larger amounts, or for Biden to pursue debt forgiveness through executive action, rather than relying on Congress. However, “there’s a long road” between these hopes and “borrowers seeing their debts reduced or eliminated,” CNBC reports, given that not all Democratic legislators may back debt forgiveness.  

Borrowers are likely, meanwhile, to see a further extension of the existing pause on student loan payments, David Kamin, who will serve as deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Biden administration, said recently in a call with reporters. The pause, first established in August 2020 and later extended, is currently set to expire on February 1, 2021. According to Inside Higher Ed, Kamin also mentioned Biden’s interest in reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and expanding income-based repayment plans. 

Democrats’ slim majority could sideline free college

While Democrats’ control of both legislative chambers will facilitate the approval of Biden’s new education secretary and ensure control of committees crucial to advancing Biden’s higher education agenda, the narrow majority could still limit progress. Specifically, it “will make it hard for the majority party to pass any major legislation, like a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, or push through enough money for widespread student-loan forgiveness or a federal free-college program,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. 

The president-elect has proposed making public community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities tuition-free for all U.S. students. Other four-year public colleges and universities would be tuition-free for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. The plan would include older students and students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, and is a “first-dollar” model, meaning that it would fully cover tuition before applying students’ other federal and state financial aid. Those aid dollars could then be used to cover expenses beyond tuition.

Related: How will a Biden administration shape higher education? >

Biden also has pledged to double the maximum Pell award, a top priority for college affordability advocates and groups like the American Council on Education and National College Attainment Network. 

Accountability for for-profit colleges, fewer hurdles for international, undocumented students

Observers also expect that Biden’s administration will bring change for the for-profit college sector. Biden has said he will reinstate guardrails undone by Trump administration education officials. Specifically, Biden’s administration could facilitate loan forgiveness for students misled by for-profit schools and ensure for-profit institutions are held accountable if their graduates are unable to obtain decent-paying jobs.

In addition, Biden has said he will swiftly take steps to create a more welcoming environment for international and undocumented students. He has pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from certain predominantly Muslim countries and likely will undo the Trump administration’s effort to restrict international student visas to four year-periods. 

Advocacy groups like the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators are urging Biden to quickly ensure undocumented students can access federal emergency grants included in the latest stimulus package, noting that it is unclear whether they are prohibited from receiving that aid—as was the case with CARES Act grants.

Biden also has indicated he will immediately reinstate the DACA program through an executive order. Advocates for undocumented students are urging Biden to pursue a more lasting solution—a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency—which would require the backing of Congress.

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